By Thom L. Jones for Gangsters Inc.
"Death will be the proof that we lived." - Rosario Castellanos
It seemed to some, Leoluca Bagarella organized his murders with the same care and deliberation you might use ordering an entrée at a favorite restaurant-knowing the result is more than satisfying.
One of his closest aids, Antonino Calvaruso, recalled how his boss was so meticulous in his preparation ritual in everything he did. From dressing for the occasion, preparing for church, to killing a victim.
Tomasso Buscetta, perhaps Sicily’s most famous Mafia informant, confirmed this. He spent time in Ucciardone Prison with Bagarella, and then three months alongside him in a penal infirmary, and came to know although had a low opinion of him. He would come to believe that he did not belong to humanity.
Bagarella (right) told him he would light a candle in front of a statue of Jesus and pray: “Take him Jesus, take him to you.” After the killing, he would pray, “Dear God, you didn’t want him. I have sent him to you. Lord, you alone know that they are the ones who want to be killed. No guilt attaches to me.” (1)
As the 1970s end, there are three murders that will be the litmus test measuring his importance within the Mafia:
Giuseppe Russo, a senior officer in the Carabinieri military police, older than Italy itself, Giuseppe Di Cristina, a Mafia capofamiglia and Boris Giuliano.
Di Cristina was not only a major figure in the brotherhood, his political clout was big enough that Italy’s ruling party, The Christian Democrats, hung their flag upside down outside party headquarters in Riesi as the funeral cortege passed.
Russo represented the Italian State at one of the highest levels.
The head of the Palermo Flying Squad was one of the most senior police officers in the city.
Assassinations of these kinds showed the world just how significant Cosa Nostra is.
Being Mafia is so important to them. From a nobody, a nessumo mischiato con niente, a nothing involved in nothing, they become a person of respect. Never to stand in line, drinks and meals for free, everyone stepping aside as they walk the streets. If respect is an addiction for Sicilians to a mafioso, it’s the very air that they breathe. Una sgarroa, an insult, is unacceptable. Respect creates power, which equals money that brings control. Their monopoly of coercive force governs everything.
In the wickedness of man that was Cosa Nostra, in a soulless town like Corleone, Leoluca Bagarella could, it seemed, with killing, resist everything but temptation. If forgiveness is something you gift yourself, he would spend a lifetime resisting this impulse.
His father Salvatore and mother Lucia Mondello married in 1928 and settled in an old tufa (porous limestone, locally quarried) house down near Piazza Annunziata, close to the Ospedale Dei Bianchi, the town’s only hospital, and the church of Santa Rosalia that they and most of their Mafia friends would use, although it was the wives who spent most time there.
Its priest, Girolamo Liggio, was a cousin to Luciano Leggio, the Corleone boss and major domo in Sicily until his arrest and imprisonment in 1974. Leggio was also a third cousin to Salvatore Riina, another Mafia star in the making. In a place where consanguinity was commonplace, almost everyone connected to someone, somehow.
The Bagarellas were a large family, not uncommon in a rural Catholic town. There were three boys, Giuseppe the eldest and then, Calogero, born in 1935. Leoluca Biagio, known by friends and family throughout his life as Luchino, arrived in February 1942. He had sisters, at least three, possibly four.
One of them, Antonietta, will become famous, twice. Initially, for being the first woman in Sicily to face trial in the Palermo Court of Assize in 1971, for Mafia association. Her second moment of fame is when she weds Salvatore Riina in 1974. She always called him Toto, the standard epithet for his first name.
On April 16, they marry in Cinisi, in a church. Their priest, Agostino Coppola, is a made man in Badalamenti’s clan. He will christen each of their four children and will die in 1995 under house arrest for his crimes.
By the late 1950s the Bagarella family is living at 24 Via Scorsone, in the San Giovanni district of the town, a narrow street as wide as a broomstick, and this is where she meets Toto after he’s done a stretch in jail. She will love him with no conditions. It will last for ever.
Antonietta lives there to this day in a house filled with memories overflowing. It must make the roof swell to contain them. Three rooms off the street, four rooms at level one above. Her husband is dead. One son is in prison forever. The other gets nine years for “Mafia membership”, and will spend his life under “special surveillance.” A life lived. For what purpose?
One of the memories is surely of the massive gunfight that took place at dawn on May 7, 1963 almost outside her front door. Leggio, Calogero and another fearsome killer in their group, Giuseppe Ruffino, try to kill Francescp Paolo Streva, Dr Navarra’s fearsome ambidextrous killer, and some of his men. Although this attempt fails, in the first week of September, Streva is gunned down in a country lane in the Pirello district, a rural area between Cortleone and Ficuzza, by Bernardo Provenzano and at least two other gunmen.
An extra in this story, Provenzano will one day, become the Mafia boss of Sicily.
Luchino is born into a family with a long connection into familial criminality. On his father’s side, there is a link to a long-dead uncle, Epifanio Palumba, who was part of one of Sicily’s early crime families, the infamous Rapanzino gang of Palermo province. Cattle rustlers, and thieves, the law exterminates them by 1840. (2)
His uncle, Arcangelo, brother to Salvatore, is one of dozens of victims of the Navarra war that rips apart Corleone in the late 1950s. (3)
Riina and Calogero Bagarella become close friends and both work at a flour mill in the town until Riina kills his first victim, shooting him over a dispute about a game of bowls. At nineteen he goes to prison until early release in 1956. The two men form a lifelong friendship that will come to embrace Leoluca as he grows into adulthood.
In 1957, Giuseppe murders a shepherd, Ambrogio Miceli, who he believes is playing fast and loose with sister Maria Matilde, the youngest daughter. Because it’s family, Calogero is there to help him. They shoot their victim dead on Via Streva, a narrow, twisting lane on the east-side of the town.. The law catches up with Giuseppe and he finished up in prison for life, dying there, allegedly murdered in Ucciardone, Palermo, in 1972.
Calogero (right) goes on the lam and stays that way until he dies in 1969, killed in a Palermo gun-fight. Leaving behind his girlfriend, Riina’s sister, Arcangela, four years younger than he was. Widowed before she could get married.
If she followed the custom of her day and never wed, she could well be the Arcangela Riina who lives today in Via Rua Del Piano in the town. She will be 82, with a lifetime of memories, no doubt like her friend Antonietta, who lives a mere three minutes away by car.
The law believed Calogero was still alive until twenty years later. A carabiniere squad in Corleone, under Captain Angelo Jannone, taps into Lucia’s phone in December 1990, and hears a conversation that confirms the death of her son.
Legend claims he’s buried in the local cemetery, although his remains have never been identified.
In 1942, as Leoluca Bagarella emerges into the poverty of Corleone, Riina is a twelve-year-old urchin playing in the muddy streets. Both Luchino and Toto Riina have two things in common that links them in family and life. They become one day, related through marriage, Bagarella forever being known within the Mafia, as “the brother-in-law”, and they are both seriously height diminished. 152 centimeters. Five feet, even.
They called Riina u curtu, shorty. Behind his back. No one, it seems, was stupid enough to use this pejorative about Bagarella. Anytime. Anywhere. He would become one of the most active and proficient killers in an organization filled with deadly men. Some sources estimate he murdered over 300, which if true, would make him one of the worst serial killers in modern history. We will never know the actual number, but it surely runs into double and possibly triple figures.
Unlike Luciano Leggio and Riina, there is no record of just who was the first man Bagarella kills. Perhaps involved in the Navarra-Leggio conflict that filled Corleone and the surrounding countryside with dozens of corpses from 1958 until 1962, which would have given him a sound apprenticeship in the art of sudden death.
The law obviously had their suspicion because along with Riina, his brother Calogero and his father Salvatore, Bagarella is a defendant at the famous Mafia trial held in Bari, on the Italian mainland, in 1969. Salvatore goes to court after completing five years in judicial exile. Served in Naples from 1963 until 1968. Everyone in the dock came from Corleone, and the judge acquits them all. To carry on killing.
We have information about the men Bagarella murdered in 1977, the year of his first excellent corpse. Or at least, some of them.
He shoots dead two men at a gas station on May 31 in San Cipirello, a small commune about 25 kilometers south-west of Palermo. One is the intended victim, the other collateral damage.
Simone Lo Manto is a shepherd, and he steals wine from a property that belonged to Nicola Salamone, the Mafia boss of the area. A crime that needs punishing. And seen to be. Bagarella and another man, Giuseppe Lo Bue, shoot the victims as they stop for petrol at a station near the town. Lo Manto is dead because he is stupid. Raimondo Mule, because he is a friend of stupid. We realize all this happened because a man called Giovanni Brusca is watching from his Fiat just down the street. He had helped to set the hit in place and would disclose all the details when he became an informant.
In the bizarre and unbelievable cruel extreme coincidence that permeates the world of Cosa Nostra, Mule’s brother, Rosario, also a shepherd, is wrongly convicted along with Rosario Cascio, Salvatore Bonello and Cosimora Russo of another double murder that takes place later in the year, 30 kilometers to the east of San Cipirello. The men serve almost twenty years in prison until information emerges that frees them. One of the multiple killers in this second incident is Leoluca Bagarella.
The victims are Colonel Giuseppe Russo and his friend, the schoolteacher, professor Filippo Costa. Also, collateral damage. Ironically, it is testimony by Brusca that helps prosecutors re- investigate the case leading to the men’s freedom in 1995.
By early 1979, law enforcement in Sicily knew something was brewing in the land of Cosa Nostra, but no one had all the pieces of the puzzle being assembled in the hills of Corleone.
Salvatore Riina was slowly infiltrating Palermo using some of his favorite Mafia families as attack pawns- San Lorenzo, La Noce, Resuttana, Uditore and above all his number one, San Giuseppe Jato, a town half-way between Corleone and the big city. Smaller than Corleone, it sheltered a fearsome Mafia clan ruled by Bernardo Brusca, two years older than Riina.
His son, Giovanni, would take over the family after the courts sentence his father to life in 1985 and would become notorious for his many crimes, one in particular which would come to haunt Leoluca Bagarella and bring him the level of grief he imposed on so many of his victims and their families.
They shared the world of the Mafia and the profession of killing machines. Known either as “the pig” or “the Christian killer,” Brusca blew up a judge and his wife and supervised the murder of a young boy. By his own words, they fitted in the one or two hundred people he killed as a mafioso. There were so many, the total escaped him. Some of them he eliminated in partnership with Bagarella. As a killer duet, they were almost certainly the best in Sicily. (4)
After shooting dead Giuseppe Di Cristina in 1978, Bagarella’s biggest assignment from Riina is to remove this troublesome cop in the Palermo Flying Squad, who is getting too close for comfort.
The carousel was going around and around at Punta Raisi Airport, and all that was on it were two battered blue suitcases. An officer in the Financial Police, on duty that day, June 19, 1979, watched as a porter removed the cases, which had arrived on a flight from Rome, and had no tags. He claimed a man paid to take them out to the kerbside, but when the police officer accompanied him outside, there was no car waiting for the pickup.
When officers from the Flying Squad arrived and they opened the cases, they found almost $US500,000 wrapped in aprons from a pizzeria in America, in Pennsylvania, and articles of clothing, some showing the logo of the same business. (5)
Badalamenti’s nephew, based in New Jersey, sent them.
Salvatore Sollena was a soldier in the Gambino Mafia Family, based in Cherry Hill. The drugs the money covered were also, ironically, discovered by the law at JFK Airport in New York before the mob could collect them. A double-banger in the worst possible way. For Sollena. The mob killed him. Two behind the ear. Found in the trunk of his car at The Four Seasons Hotel parking lot in Collingswood, New Jersey. It may have been for screwing this up. Or his gambling habits. Another deal gone south. All kinds of reasons. Paul Castellano, boss of the Gambinos, said make him go away. And he did.
The Flying Squad’s investigation, starting at the airport, would determine the trunks are for a soldier in the Villagrazia Mafia clan, Francesco Mafara. Some sources claim he was part of Brancaccio’s family, numerically, the largest in Sicily. He owns a quarry to the west of the city and links to one of the biggest and most mysterious art heists in history, the theft of Caravaggio’s Nativity stolen in 1969 from a Palermo church. He never picks up the suitcases and then he then disappears in 1981 during the great mafia war.
They strangled him, along with two others, Antonio Grado and Francesco Marino. The murderers, Pino Greco, Mario Prestifilippo, Giuseppe Lucchese and Fifo Marchese were laughing and joking as they carried out the killings. Then, they loaded the dead onto a small vehicle, drove the bodies out into the countryside and buried them. (6)
Lupara Bianca, they call it, white shotgun. Gone for good. Shoot them on the street and they are dead. Make them vanish and know one really, really knows. It’s a special Mafia agony. Legend has it Corleone was the first family to use this technique. They never denied it. Myth or truth, it was impeachable advertising for their brand: The Corleonesi.
Boris Giuliano knows this money find is an important link in his inquiry into Mafia drug trafficking. The pieces are fitting together. He orders a sweep across Palermo province as far as Trapani to check on potential heroin labs, suspicious buildings, places that could store large amounts of product and equipment. He’s putting on the pressure.
And so they kill him. It’s the Mafia’s solution for problems that fit the too hard basket. Negotiate. Mediate. Then eliminate.
Get the latest on organized crime and the Mafia at Gangsters Inc.'s news section.
Copyright © Thom L. Jones & Gangsters Inc.